Monday, August 28, 2006

The Emmys -- A Meta Critique

Two of the LA Times writers blast the Emmy awards for various and sundry reasons, most of them reasonable. Then Tom O'Neil of the LA Times awards section The Envelope takes their complaints on one at a time. And now I take on O'Neil. Very meta. Somewhere, the corpse of Derrida is smiling.

Like The Oscars, the Emmy Awards does a terrible job of showcasing the very art it means to celebrate. The Oscars rarely show movie clips and the ones they do show are often poorly chosen and too short. Last night, the Emmys haphazardly showed some clips from some shows early on and then dropped it almost completely as the night progressed and the clock ticked. Even the top sitcoms and dramas weren't showcased. In other words, TV viewers watched three hours of TV celebrating TV and I don't think anyone saw a single clip of a single show that would make them say, Wow, I want to watch that.

This is a much bigger issue than who wins and who loses. On the Grammys, the biggest long-term winner is not the person who takes home an award but often the artist who gets to perform and knocks them dead. On the Emmys, the big winner could be a show like "Rescue Me" or even "Law & Order: SVU" -- what if they showed a meaty clip that exposed those series to people who have never watched them and made those viewers say, Gee, that looks really interesting? Maybe a great clip from "Grey's Anatomy" (say the overheated episode with the unexploded bomb) could have made some men think, Hey, that doesn't look so much like a chick flick as I thought. How about a substantial clip from "The Amazing Race" that might actually explain why this series wins year after year after year. I think I saw 15 seconds from "The Office," which ain't enough to make those who haven't come on board eagerly set their Tivos for the new season. If it's the best comedy of the year, surely they can spare one minute to show some hilarious scene that works out of context, something to make people say, Let's watch that when it comes back in a few weeks.

REBUTTAL OF O'NEIL'S REBUTTAL #1 -- O'Neil says in fact that the right shows often win -- sure, "Grey's Anatomy" lost but it lost to "24." Sure, "Lost" wasn't even nominated but it submitted the wrong episode, he says. Well, the Emmys are almost always a day late and a dollar short. "24" is a very deserving winner -- this may have been its best season. But it really should have won its FIRST season or maybe its third. Taking five years to recognize something this groundbreaking is too long. It's not a question of "24" versus "Grey's Anatomy" or "The Office" versus "Two and a Half Men." It's a question of timing. The entire WORLD has known that "24" has been top-notch TV for five years. Heck, it's about to be turned into a movie. How can the Emmys always be so late to the party? Even when Emmy honors a great show like "The Sopranos," they are invariably slow-footed and that makes them stodgy and stupid and years behind TV fans. The Emmys are less savvy than the average viewer in Topeka, Kansas and that's bad. This may -- MAY -- be changing a tad as "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives" were good choices last season and "The Office" and the way-overdue "24" were good ones this year. But that success in the two biggest categories doesn't overcome the sense of ennui that exists in almost every other voting result. O'Neil's biggest gripe is that people don't understand that the voting is based on the episodes submitted. I say the episodes submitted should be a helpful ADJUNCT for people unfamiliar with a series, not the entire basis for your vote. If you don't watch "The West Wing" and Alison Janney's submission impresses you, I think it's your duty to watch four or five more (or as many episodes as you can) to judge her fairly with the people whose work you do know. Watch four or five more episodes and you'll realize she's a very good actress but her Emmy submission is deceptive: she is clearly a supporting actress and in fact this final season she didn't even have a lot of supporting to do. No one who watches "The West Wing" could honestly believe she should win Best Actress, even if they felt she deserved Best Supporting Actress. If you don't want to do the work of actually watching episodes to catch up on the nominees, don't vote.

REBUTTAL TO O'NEIL'S REBUTTAL #2 -- O'Neil says we can't realistically expect jurors to watch 24 episodes each of all five nominees. Why the hell not? Well, not if they had to do it in one weekend, we couldn't. But what are they doing all season? Let's take Drama: the five nominees are "Grey's Anatomy," "House," "The Sopranos," "24," and "The West Wing." Before the Emmy nominations, I'd already seen every episode of "24," every episode of "The Sopranos," easily 90% of "Grey's Anatomy" and 90% of "House." I gave up on "The West Wing" two years ago, so I'd only seen a handful of episodes like the live debate. If I was voting and it made the shortlist, that would be the only show I needed to catch up on. I could certainly watch the first six episodes (a fourth of the entire season) pretty quickly and depending on their quality, keep going if I felt there was a case to be made that it was better than my instinctive pick from the five, which was "24." I think having seen roughly 106 episodes from the five nominees that I could vote fairly. Now let's check out Comedy. I do much more poorly here, because the nominations are so ridiculous. No "My Name Is Earl?" No "Everybody Hates Chris?" No "Gilmore Girls?" The five nominees were: "Arrested Development," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "The Office," "Scrubs" and "Two and a Half Men." I'd seen all of "Arrested," about four of "Two and a Half Men" and at least six of the other three. Granted, that's not nearly as many as the dramas, but it's still a substantial chunk of the shows that aired (at least 25% of each, except for "Men") and I could improve that in one weekend. Remember we have a few weeks from the time the short list is announced and the final voting. I think in picking the winners of Best Comedy and Best Drama that I could devote a few days to hardcore watching. And if I don't want to devote the time, I shouldn't vote. Could we do this in every category? You bet. Guess what? Cover the top ten nominees in shows and you've already sampled a huge chunk of the episodes you need to watch for acting and so on. Writing and directing will probably be covered too for most shows. Oh, but I haven't mentioned "Rescue Me" and "The Comeback" and so on. Well, I've been watching a lot more than just those top shows. And four or five episodes of Lisa Kudrow's "The Comeback" should get me up to speed pretty quick -- that's a lot more than the Emmys require right now. Throw in the miniseries and TV movies (most of which I'd seen already, just like the top shows) and you quickly find that with the tiniest bit of effort and a weekend or two of marathon watching you can give a fair shake to every nominee. So hell yes we can expect people who vote on the TV shows to actually watch more than one or two episodes.

REBUTTAL TO O'NEIL'S REBUTTAL #3 -- He says why should the Emmys penalize a canceled show? Is Tony Shalhoub undeserving? What if a show had its best season in its final year? OK, if O'Neil thinks "Will & Grace" had its best season in its final year then he is almost completely alone (and that probably includes the people who actually make the show). In your heart of hearts, if you think the final season of a show that has been canceled was the best of any show on the air, by all means vote for it. But we all know that's not what is happening. It's simply that people get lazy and once they've started voting for "Will & Grace" or John Lithgow or Dennis Franz of whomever, they just keep ticking off the same box year after year regardless of what the show is like. It's not overwhelming quality that causes these repeat nominations and wins -- it's lethargy. Tony Shalhoub is a deserving actor and it was great when he won for "Monk." Winning three times out of the last four however is not a sign that he is giving the greatest comedic performance in TV history. It is a sign of Emmy laziness. Ultimately, no one's performance is unquestionably better than another's -- but it's all about timing. A once-in-a-lifetime show like "Hill Street Blues" or "The Mary Tyler Moore" show can dominate for several years and should. But this happens again and again in too many categories and the trend is worsening -- ironically -- as more and more shows are eligible from countless more outlets. (Remember, when "Mary" and "Hill Street" dominated, there were only three networks. Now there are hundreds of outlets, meaning the likelihood a show deserves to dominate should be far less.) Shalhoub has been justly honored. Now it's clearly Steve Carell's turn for the spotlight -- he stars in the best sitcom (according to the Emmys) and he anchors the show with a performance that is increasingly good. Is it "better" than Shalhoub's? That's not the point. The point is why honor a show or an actor three or four years in a row? It's tiresome, it's embarrassing to them and it almost never reflects the quality of the show being produced. It's a question of balance, of recognizing continued excellence without ignoring the landmark breakout hits that are setting standards for quality, like "The Sopranos," which took years to get recognized. Sometimes, a great show like "Frasier" really is the best series several years in a row and the actors are at the top of their form. But did it really need to win FIVE years in a row? Was it really so vastly superior to fellow nominees like "The Larry Sanders Show," "Friends," "Mad About You," "NewsRadio," "Third Rock From The Sun" and "Seinfeld," all of which were on the air during that streak? Nope.

REBUTTAL TO O'NEIL'S REBUTTAL #4 -- The critics said it was a weak slate for sitcoms with shows like "The King of Queens" and "Two and a Half Men" being nominated. O'Neil says some people like them, those shows are under-appreciated and thank goodness the Emmys woke up to traditional sitcoms like them and procedurals like "Law & Order: SVU" which get no respect. Again, opinions will always vary, but if O'Neil argues the Emmys should honor excellence, it's an unquestionable fact that the VAST majority of critics praised "My Name Is Earl," "Everybody Hates Chris" and "Gilmore Girls" more than those two. "Queens" and "Men" were hardly over-nominated, since only one got a Best Sitcom nod. But again, Jon Cryer snuck into the supporting actor category, which is absurd. He is clearly a lead along with Charlie Sheen. The argument that "King of Queens" and "Two and a Half Men" were among the best sitcoms is decidedly a minority one. Surely the Emmys should honor excellence and usually that would be reflected by the general buzz in the industry and among critics. Fan support shouldn't be dismissed -- "Roseanne" was unjustly passed over as has been "American Idol." But it's a fair criticism to point out when the Emmys don't reflect the opinion of the industry they are SUPPOSED to be reflecting.

REBUTTAL TO O'NEIL'S REBUTTAL #5 -- The critics said "The Office" won Best Sitcom but bemoaned the possibility that this wouldn't give the show a ratings boost, since it didn't for "Arrested Development." O'Neil is right that the Emmy win probably gave "Arrested" three seasons instead of one or two. And it's not the job of the Emmys to boost ratings but to celebrate excellence. But to circle back to my first comment, the Emmys should SHOWCASE the best in television. "The Office" won best sitcom and had multiple nominations. I didn't see a SINGLE clip that would make me want to watch the show if I wasn't already a fan. That is a terrible failing and if the Emmys fixed it by eliminating chit-chat and sketches and stupid filler (or even great filler) and adding in substantial clips of the major award nominees, they'd do a lot better job of boosting TV's best REGARDLESS of who won.

No comments: